Sihanouk’s revenge

1960 Suramarit Funeral-By Milton Osborne

This is the second of a two-part interview I conducted with Australian historian Milton Osborne, the biographer and longtime observer of the late Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former king and prime minister.  The first part is here. The image above was taken by Milton Osborne at the funeral of King Norodom Suramarit in 1960.

Q: I was surprised on re-reading Sihanouk: Prince of Light that you were so forgiving of Sihanouk for joining with the Khmer Rouge in 1970. That seems to me his greatest sin. He couldn’t foresee the details of the KR economic program, of course. However, even with his weak grasp of ideology, he’d know from the Chinese and Vietnamese records that Khmer Rouge would try to obliterate religion. And he had spent a lot of time in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution.

Near the end of the civil war, he rejected any ceasefire overtures from Lon Nol: he wanted those defectors crushed. He didn’t care about the further loss of Cambodian lives.  He probably rejoiced over their deaths. Sure, it’s uninformed and simplistic to say, “Sihanouk was always in it for Sihanouk”.  But perhaps there is germ of truth in it. Don’t most/all dictators think they are acting for the greater good of their countries?

MO: On reflection I think I now would be more critical of Sihanouk’s decision to side with the KR than I was when I wrote my biography in 1993 (published 1994). I certainly would give much more weight to the element of a burning desire for revenge in Sihanouk’s decision and his lack of thought for what this would mean in terms of the loss of life that would result from that decision. And I believe that a wish for revenge was a large part of what motivated him right through to the end of the civil war. But as a student of history I would also have to continue to give weight to the importance that should be attached to having Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong and Pham Van Dong all urging him to act as he did. Susceptible as he always was to flattery, how could he not respond to the urgings of such a constellation of power and political talent?

All this said, and given the nature of his self-referential personality, it probably was the case that he thought he could assume a role of some importance once the GRUNK [Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea, a fig leaf coalition of Sihanouk allies with the Khmer Rouge during the 1970-1975 civil war] triumphed, despite his having told Jean Lacouture in 1971 that he expected the Cambodian communists would spit him out once they won. In retrospect, the fact that he had any thought he could play a role seems absurd, but not necessarily to Sihanouk. And, yes, he wanted the defectors crushed, but he also thought that as Cambodia’s only true leader he might somehow or other be able to be in a position, once again, when he could tell ‘his children’ how to behave.

Q: Corruption. I have come to have more sympathy for the first rulers of post-colonial Asian states. Authoritarianism for a few decades probably was inevitable.  It’s impossible to graft Western political forms on populations with no underpinnings. And few if any countries started with less social capital than Cambodia (and Laos). Cambodians not even allowed to be lowly government clerks under the French. Nothing that would be called today a civil society.  But with Cambodia by Cambodians starting from scratch, plus the Sihanouk royal aura, you make a case that he didn’t even try to curb corruption.

Cambodians today refer to corruption often.  Even Cambodian NGOs have a bad reputation.   Are forms and habits of corruption today a legacy of Sihanouk’s time?  If a person is a member of the CPP or the party of a coalition partner, is it something like being a member of Sihanouk’s civil service or the Sangkum—a license to steal?    At least the MPs get a decent salary nowadays, so there’s no excuse for them but other civil servants? Then there is the extravagant lifestyle of Hun Sen’s family and close associates.  Sihanouk’s homes and indulgences might look modest in comparison but was Sihanouk the role model?

MO: It is easier to write about the existence of corruption than to analyse it in any sort of detail. Corruption was widespread under Sihanouk and is widespread today. Why? It is widespread because the nature of the state could not function without it. How, for instance, could Cambodia maintain a police force if its personnel had to rely on their salaries? How could one be a politician and be expected to be a ‘father’, or ‘mother’ to one’s constituents, if one were not corrupt, even with their better salaries today. The issue that I tried to draw attention to in my biography of Sihanouk was that, particularly in the latter stages of his rule, he was ready to disregard the ‘grand corruption’ of [wife] Monique’s relatives—Madame Pomme and Oum Mannorine. In short, what I call ‘functional corruption’, which greases the cogs and levers of the state, was acceptable and a part of life, but ‘grand corruption’ becomes, at some point, a cause for deep resentment. Just when that occurs can only be spotted after the event.

Is there grand corruption today? I think it could be argued there is, but in contrast to ‘Sihanouk time’, to use that frequently uttered phrase in today’s Cambodia, there are enough people benefiting from the situation to mean that there is very little likelihood that it will bring a widespread reaction, at least for the moment.

Q: The Khmer Rouge are usually depicted as shadowy, unknown figures that emerged out of the jungle. So it’s startling to recall that in Sihanouk’s Sangkum of the early 1960s, Khieu Samphan and Hou Youn were briefly in the Cabinet and, like another MP, Hu Nim, were well known and popular. Did they have much influence? Were they actually running their offices? Could the present-day assembly be compared to the supposedly non-factionalized Sangkum?  Do the parties have substantial policy differences? I believe foreigners see the Sam Rainsy Party as standing for cleaner government, while Cambodians see it as a lost cause. Will the stigma of Hun Sen’s Vietnamese connections always be in the forefront of Cambodians’ minds?

MO: I’m much more confident giving some response to your questions about Khieu Samphan and Hou Youn than reflecting on contemporary politicians.

Khieu Samphan, and Hou Youn and Hu Nim to a lesser extent, were well known figures in urban Cambodia in the 1960s. As I have noted in an earlier response, Khieu Samphan was re-elected in 1966 despite efforts by Sihanouk to prevent this result. I can’t cite percentage figures, but among the admittedly quite small educated class in the Phnom Penh of the 1960s these left-wing politicians were well known, and admired by many of those who did know them as incorrupt and dedicated to doing something about the social problems that plagued the country. They were contrasted with Chau Seng, for instance, who was seen as self-seeking and ready to engage in corrupt activities despite his proclaimed ‘socialist’ values.

Westerners who praise Sam Rainsy might be correct in believing that he would be less corrupt than many of his fellow politicians were he to be in power, which is unlikely to happen. Those same Westerners would be shocked if they knew more about his views on Vietnam and the Vietnamese which are, quite frankly, couched in the worst possible racist terms.

I don’t think Hun Sen’s links to Vietnam are a problem for most politically alert Cambodians, particularly as he now is so clearly ready to balance those links with his close association with China.

Q: You observed the funeral ceremonies for King Norodom Suramarit, Sihanouk’s father, in 1960 (during which you took the above photo).  That was the last time such a monarch’s funeral was held in Phnom Penh. Can you tell us anything about the ceremonies or creation rites that will take place on February 5? Do you think there will be an elephant procession?

MO: I expect the funeral to be a very grand affair, with a great procession and ceremonies around the funeral pagoda, which I presume will be erected on the Men ground in front of the National Museum—which was where Suramarit was cremated. A notable difference will be the fact that those taking part in the funeral will effectively be there for the day. That is, there will not be platoons of palace servants taking part but rather people drafted in and dressed up for the day in traditional clothing. But I expect that there will be people from the Cham community in their traditional clothing marching in the procession, and of course many, many Buddhist monks. I hope there will be elephants, if nothing else for the pageantry they will represent.

Suramarit died in April and was cremated in August. Norodom I died  in 1904 and was cremated in 1906. In both cases I understand the decision about the cremation date was taken by the court Brahmins. Whether they are playing any role this time, I don’t know. Just as I don’t know whether Sihanouk’s body was placed in an urn filled with mercury, which was the practice in the past. By far the most detailed account of a royal cremation in Cambodia is that in Paul Collard, Cambodge et Cambodgiens, published in 1925. Collard, who was a senior French official and who witnessed the events, publishes a ‘blow by blow’ account of all the ceremonies, even detailing the particular wood that had to be used in constructing the cremation pagoda.

Q: How did Sihanouk respond to the biography?

MO:  Ah, you are posing this question to someone who had been described in various ways by Sihanouk. When he wrote his memoir with Wilfred Burchett, My War with the CIA (New York, 1973), I was an ‘Asian expert,’ because I had interviewed Son Ngoc Thanh’s brother, Son Thai Nguyen, on 7 January 1971 and published an article about this in the Melbourne Age that same month, which suited Sihanouk’s interpretation of the March 1970 coup that deposed him.

I’m not sure that he ever read or referred to my Politics and Power in Cambodia (1973), but when I published Before Kampuchea,  in 1979,  I fell deeply into his bad books. I was told of his anger by various Cambodian acquaintances that were in touch with him. And that anger was further fuelled by the biography I published in 1994. The palace made an effort to stop it being sold in Phnom Penh, which failed–a reflection of the lost power of royalty–with a journalist telling me that Sihanouk seethed with anger when mention of the book was made at a press conference he gave. (I’m sorry but I can’t give you more detail on this.) Neither have I kept references to the occasions when he denounced me in his communiqués published on his website. It really was a case, for me, of water off a duck’s back when the allegations were so absurd, always along the lines that I took delight in his overthrow in 1970. I never bothered to reply.